In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism to reprint “Imperium in Imperio: Sutton Griggs’s Imagined War of 1898”, we explained how a fine academic journal was kindly reprinting our article on the African-American novelist Sutton Griggs. The request from Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism also included a hefty paycheck that will be spent to benefit the magazine. After some savvy negotiating — the art of the deal — we accepted the initial offer without qualms. I received a check for $400.
Buoyed by the windfall, I took a moment to reflect upon my own mercenary career as a writer. If my number crunching over the last thirty years is correct, I can safely say the recent bonanza eclipsed all previous earnings combined. Previously, I had earned $225 in 1987 and $150 in 2000 for a total of $375. While those numbers should be adjusted for inflation, in a single stroke I more than doubled my writerly wealth. That’s the handsome sum of about $26 a year. Says who you can’t get rich being a writer.
My first obligation was to share the wealth with the magazine’s court poets for their admirable services rendered. Each was written checks at $25 per poem. To a man, each graciously declined, instead donating the proceeds to our fund to get a better facebook page.
I also asked the poets to offer a brief reflection on their own writing and getting paid.
From John Roche,
I’ve been paid for encyclopedia articles for Gale, etc. In 2000, I got a request from Twentieth Century Literary Criticism to republish an article from my dissertation I’d published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review in 1988. Along with a nice check! But I’ve never been paid more than a token twenty-five bucks for a poem, and that’s only happened once or twice. So money has little to do with poetry, in my experience. One gets paid for giving readings sometimes. And, of course, you can sell books. But one seldom does more than recoup expenses. Not complaining, mind you. New York poets are fortunate, in fact, to have a number of grants available from county and state Arts Councils. Some of these are administered by Poets & Writers, Inc. and the application process is usually quite easy. Most states don’t have anything comparable.
From Bill Pruitt
In forty plus years of publishing poetry, I don’t think I have ever gotten paid, except when I sold the copies of chapbooks allotted to me from White Pine and FootHills presses, or my own (self-published) book. Nor do I expect to. The reasons are complex, but I expect they have something to do with words being too closely associated with literality amongst the public, which association undercuts the sound and metaphorical values poetry depends on. So people need music to be nourished by poetry, which substitutes other values for literal meaning. But I never write poetry or fiction for money considerations- the rewards are much greater! Storytelling is different of course, (even with stories that I compose myself) because that activity only exists as a collective one, so payment comes in naturally as part of the public collective aspect. Narrative writing is yet a third category, in which the fictional aspect loosens the stranglehold of expectations that language be taken literally and allows sound and metaphor to enter the room in the company of referent and representation. Also because the need for story is simply too great to be denied. Congrats on getting paid!
From George Payne
I like your question about money. I have been paid maybe three times in my life for my creative writing. At Fisher I won a few first place poetry prizes. I spent most of the 100 dollars on beer and garbage plates.
Since then I would say that my writing has been my career. Without being able to communicate through the written word, I would be a different person today. It has allowed me to express myself, share suggestions, defend positions, and generally succeed in many diverse workplaces. If we look at paid writing in that light, I have made tens of thousands of dollars for my writing.
On the creative side, I write for the sake of saying something that I am not hearing in the public discourse. I have an urge to write that transcends money, audience, and other people’s sense of quality and taste. I write because I have to. So I have never sought ways to make money for my poetry and essays.
I think your question is a good one. What role money plays in shaping who we are as an artist is fundamental to understanding why we are motivated to do what we do. The purpose of our art is influenced by many forces but money is the most complex and dangerous force of all.
As for my own career as a paid writer, it began auspiciously. In 1987, after having graduated from Brown University, I tried my hand as freelance reporter for The Providence Business News. My first story was on the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox; I interviewed several players and the owner Ben Mondor. The piece had one good line. Hoping for something out of the movie Bull Durham, I asked infielder Todd Benzinger to talk about extra curricular hijinks when the team was on the road.
Disappointing for both of us, Todd said there is no sex in the minor leagues. But I had made my $75 and another $75 for a story on a genial doorman who worked in downtown Providence.
And I certainly earned by paycheck with “A broker’s yen for Zen.” At that time, my two good friends, Wendy Maland and Scott Cannon, also Brown graduates, had become involved in Zen meditation and spent time at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, RI.
Wendy would become a lifetime practitioner. Scott was more a zen dabbler with an unusual approach. Scott combined meditation with smoking as he considered both to be forms of controlled breathing. But it was Scott’s ill fated visit to the Zen Center that piqued my journalistic interest.
Scott had decided to try a weekend retreat. When the first meditation session began, Scott was in his robe and had placed his sandals in the alcove. Just then, Scott noticed that the man leading the session was wearing a watch! Scott was startled as he believed the whole point of zen was to be in the moment — not tied to time. Feeling a little ripped off even as the weekend was just beginning, Scott fled, grabbed his sandals and made sure he had his wallet.
Having no transportation, he started walking away from the Center into the Rhode Island countryside. A trucker noticed him wandering and offered a lift. They ended up — in delicious irony — at a True Value hardware store that had a pay phone. Scott called a friend to give him a lift back to Providence. I am not sure if he got his deposit back for the aborted weekend retreat.
With Scott’s story in mind, I visited the Center and later interviewed its abbot, Jacob Pearl. By coincidence, I had also come across another detractor. At the time, I was working in a liquor store and a customer, Bob Johnson, had lived in but left the Center. One evening he described his negative feelings towards the Center. As seen (right), Bob’s biggest complaint was with the practice of American Zen. Unlike traditional zen, American Zen does not demand celibacy. As Bob would say, the atmosphere become too libertine for his tastes: “everyone’s banging each other.” Bob would move to California for acupuncture school, and send back a postcard.
When interviewing the abbot with my stirring-the-pot stories from Scott and Bob, I hoped to generate some controversy. However, Jacob Perl, the abbot, was too zen to take my bait. Unperturbed by the criticisms, he dismissed Bob as a rare trouble maker who had to be banned. Perl said Bob should accept that life includes romantic heartbreak.
As for Scott, Perl shrugged, saying Scott’s impulsive “escape” was just a case of over rationalizing and having false expectations for what zen is.
After those successes, the well ran dry. I was assigned to cover a paint ball game in the Rhode Island woods as a participant observer. I tried to lead on charge — exhorting the players like Pickett at Gettsyburg — but no one followed. Afterwards, the story bogged down and was not finished. Shortly after, I took a job in the Brown Office of Development, and wasn’t paid again for again for 13 years.
For the D & C, I wrote a Guest Essay on the Buffalo Soldiers who fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Then — and still today — the D & C does not pay Guest Columnists. So, I re-packaged the piece and sold it to the Buffalo News, which, unlike the D & C cheapskates, does pay. Another cool $75.
I also re-re-packaged the article that would appear in the Boston Herald. The Herald didn’t pay but kindly mailed me 5 free copies, of which two exist.
The final payment before the current one was on Election Day, 2000 in the Providence Journal. When I received my $75 a few weeks later, we didn’t yet have a winner as hanging chads were still being counted.
Along the journey, I have written a few academic articles. If you are really lucky, you get two free copies. But, alas, many journals have abandoned print. So you don’t get any free copies. When the journals did come out in print, I donated the extra copies to the Brighton High School Alumni author display case. see In search of Shirley Jackson and finding the Brighton High School Alumni author display case
SEE ALSO BELOW